The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford — the lead ship in the Ford-class of aircraft carrier, the first new class in more than 40 years — arrives at Naval Station Norfolk on Jan. 18, 2024, following an eight-month deployment — the carrier’s first combat deployment.

The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford — the lead ship in the Ford-class of aircraft carrier, the first new class in more than 40 years — arrives at Naval Station Norfolk on Jan. 18, 2024, following an eight-month deployment — the carrier’s first combat deployment. (Jacob Mattingly/U.S. Navy)

As the Chinese investment of the South China Sea — the Great Wall of Sand — reaches force majeure impregnability the U.S. Navy finds itself at sea, literally with up to eight aircraft carriers, a number not seen since the fleet went littoral, traded the high seas for the high deserts of the Forever Wars. This show-of-force constitutes a global stress test the Navy, operating at a red-hot tempo, cannot sustain for long. Crisis management concatenated tous azimut has no quarter for an undermanned, overworked, understrength sea service.

The 5th, 6th, and 7th fleets are stretched thin to say the least. Shooting down Houthi drones in the Red Sea and conducting airstrikes on targets in Yemen; deterring Iranian proxies in the Levant; conducting Freedom of Navigation transits through the Taiwan Strait; backstopping Ukrainian independence and keeping North Korea from going off the deep end are daunting enough. Mission Impossible if extreme duress for the duration.

The ever-present danger of a Chinese move on Taiwan keeps the 7th Fleet in a near-war footing. The “pacing threat” of a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is enough to keep the war gamers pacing the 3 a.m. halls of the Pentagon. Some two dozen war games have shown that when it comes to escalation-dominance the PLAN has no peer. Victory At Sea in this century is no Richard Rodgers score.

The world’s largest navy commands the Scenario Sea. How the 25-year-old PLAN (dating from the last “humiliation” in the Taiwan Strait) would fare in a Cruel Sea is another story. A roll of the dice, though the odds weigh heavily in its favor. Certainly where Taiwan is concerned. The 7th Fleet has a “hundred tanker” problem, let alone the ability to relieve Taiwan once the missiles from the mainland begin to fly. Breaking a blockade around the island is a task for the fleet at flood tide. The East of Suez Fleet would be lucky to fight another day. Should the balloon go up on the naval gigantomachy in the Western Pacific the 7th Fleet would be hard-put to avoid another Tsushima. The Cruel Sea indeed.

But even if the two navies manage to stay out of harm’s way the Chinese have come to rule the waves. The secretary of the Navy’s recent call for a “maritime statecraft” is a day late and a dollar short. The Chinese not only boast the world’s largest navy, they also boast the world’s largest coast guard and the world’s third largest merchant marine and the world’s largest fishing fleet and the world’s biggest shipyards. Their maritime statecraft is second to none. Alongside ships and more ships and the building of ships the Chinese have also managed to become the port infrastructure master builders. All those container cranes at the Port Of Long Beach in California were made in China. Port Operations too is a Chinese tour de force in too many seaports. Piraeus, Greece for one, Panama City for another. Teddy Roosevelt is turning in his grave. Running the Panama Canal is a feat of Chinese mettle.

Beneath the radar the Chinese have become supply-chain predominant. Number one in so many key areas of maritime commerce. The nine-dash line is something of a joke. The Chinese breakout occurred in the 1980s and ’90s. Maritime statecraft is the ticket to global domination. The Chinese punched that ticket while the eyes-wide-shut of American triumphalism was doing a victory lap.

The U.S. Navy continues to contract; the merchant marine is a sad relic; shipbuilding is a non-starter; and the maritime statecraft of five administrations has been out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Decades of neglect and negligence have resulted in a fat chance of reversing course in time to head off a showdown in the Western Pacific. A nuclear showdown. As war game after war game has shown, the naval war goes nuclear in the blink of an eye.

Hubris accomplished. Fat Leonard take a bow. The squandering of American maritime supremacy surely ranks as one of the great debacles in recent history. A folie de grandeur, a folly surpassing that of the Forever War. Staving off defeat long enough for help to arrive in the guise of DARPA wonder weapons seems to be the plan of the day. Set Condition Zulu.

Absent a maritime statecraft on the scale and urgency of World War II — call it Victory At Sea 2.0 — the Pax Americana is fated to slip beneath the waves. Commence a century of American humiliation. The Maritime Administration needs to go from a moribund agency to a get-things-done brain trust free of red tape. Sealift rust buckets need to be deep-sixed, replaced with a flotilla of fast supply vessels. The Merchant Marine has to be stood up again, in numbers and fast. The days of flags of convenience are over. Above all the U.S. Navy has to become the lynchpin of a maritime statecraft that takes no prisoners. That reasserts predominance on the high seas. Think Ulithi Lagoon circa 1944. Among other things that means obligatory national service for all males age 18 to 21. The all-volunteer armed forces just got a demographic (and democratic) boost.

Well over a trillion dollars is going into “modernizing” the nuclear triad. That money, I submit, would be better spent on shipyards, and ships, and more ships, and the crews to navigate them through the perilous waters ahead. If the administration is serious about a maritime statecraft then it should be trumpeting it from sea to shining sea. The future of the U.S. Navy hangs in the balance. The scenario I can’t keep from envisioning finds tens of thousands of corpses floating in the sanguinary waters of the Cruel Sea. American corpses. Taking the high seas for granted has resulted in major rust. East of Suez is not a place to take lightly. Not at all.

Robert Andersen, who served aboard a destroyer, is writing a novel about the blue water Navy in Vietnam. Last year he was a Visiting Fellow at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

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